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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Tim Fitzharris

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Heeere Kitty, Kitty, Kitty
Just kidding, of course. The last thing you ever want to do is invite a mountain lion to come closer. Especially a mother with kittens.

By Keridwen Cornelius

They're everywhere and nowhere. Like James Bond, Jason Bourne and Keyser Söze, they slink through numerous countries (from Canada to Argentina, deserts to rainforests), use multiple aliases (cougar, puma, panther, catamount), and prefer to work alone.

Not surprisingly, mountain lions are more closely related to stealthy loners like the leopard and lynx than the sociable African lion. And though they're the most widespread mammal in the Americas, apart from humans, they're arguably the most elusive.

In Arizona, where the population is estimated at 2,500, few people have seen a mountain lion in the flesh. Experts estimate that 75 to 95 percent of presumed sightings are actually hazy glimpses of other animals.

It's this invisibility that makes them positively ooze mystery and danger. Yet in the past century, just 14 people have been killed by mountain lions in North America. Compare that to 1,300 by rattlesnakes, 4,000 by bees and 10,000 by deer (car accidents).

But as humans continue to encroach on mountain lion territory, these shy animals are becoming both threatened and threatening. By the early 20th century, hunters and ranchers eliminated mountain lions from the Midwest states to the East, leaving only an endangered few in Florida. On the flip side, mountain lions are increasingly (though still very rarely) exhibiting red-flag behavior: roaming in daylight, showing no fear of humans, and stalking people.

Last October, game officials shot a mountain lion after it stalked a hiker and his dog in Madera Canyon, south of Tucson. The lion had advanced on the man even after he shouted, waved his arms wildly and fired two warning shots in the air.

Make no mistake: Cougars are contenders. They can grow to more than 8 feet long and weigh 150 pounds, jump 20 feet horizontally or 18 feet into a tree. They can even swim. The sight of something running away can trigger an irresistible predatory response, and they've been known to slaughter more than a dozen sheep at once.

Yet mountain lions play a vital role in the ecosystem, keeping deer, elk and peccary populations in check. And since they roam so widely — a single male defends a territory up to 1,000 square miles — protecting their habitat ensures the preservation of the other species that share it.

If you encounter a mountain lion, don't run or turn away. Open your jacket to appear larger, wave your arms, speak loudly, throw things at it (without bending down or turning away to pick things up) and slowly back away. Report the incident to the Forest Service or Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Then consider yourself one of the lucky few who has seen one.

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